Seven of the Best Luxury River Cruises

By David McGonigal

The idea of taking a cruise without worrying about getting seasick has a lot of appeal, but that’s only one reason why river cruising is booming. There’s also the joy of travelling from city to city without changing rooms, of the never-ending scenery running past your window or balcony, of being part of life on the river. As river cruising has boomed there’s been rapid proliferation in cruise vessels. But while ocean-going ships are becoming bigger and bigger, the constraints of rivers and bridges restrict the size of river vessels. Since every company faces the same restrictions, the difference between one company and another may be less pronounced than at sea.

One benefit is that there are no inside cabins so everyone has a view but a disadvantage is that the wider the outside balcony the narrower the cabin. This has necessitated considerable ingenuity in design to make the most of the space available. Some companies have gone for larger rooms and fewer guests, others have created distinct personalities for each vessel and others offer features and facilities beyond your bedroom. That’s not to say that river vessels offer small cabins or suites: it’s a very competitive market and, on average, the typical river cabin may be the same size – or larger – than a ship’s cabin. However, it’s impossible to match an expansive suite on the most luxurious seagoing vessel – Regent Seven Seas Explorer’s Regent Suite is 413 square metres – on board a river vessel that has to squeeze into a lock.

Then there’s height. River vessels must fit under bridges – some of which may have been built centuries ago – so there’s more creativity required to ensure the furniture and canopies on the top deck can fold flat to make the most of every centimetre. Europe is perfectly suited to river cruising – many cities began as river ports – and is definitely the area with the greatest concentration of river-cruise vessels. But there are river cruises on five other continents from South America’s upper Amazon, North America’s Mississippi and Columbia rivers, the Nile, Chobe and Zambezi in Africa, Australia’s Murray and several rivers across Asia.

APT

In the Berlitz ‘River Cruising in Europe’ guide, all of the Top 10 vessels of the 310 ranked represented APT or its partner AmaWaterways. The company’s vessels have always been clever in design and its Concerto class features suites that consist of a French balcony and a separate outside balcony. APT operates vessels in the European fleet and also operates river cruises in the USA, Africa, South America and across Asia.

Food is a high priority and APT has recreated its Chef’s Table Restaurant as a true tasting-menu experience. The company has also partnered with action travel company Backroads to offer hiking and cycling excursions.
aptouring.com.au

 

Avalon Waterways

In its panoramic suites, Avalon has turned the beds to face the window – a glass wall that opens to a French balcony – so you really do feel as if you’re floating on the river. In 2017 Avalon Fresh was introduced with an emphasis on local ingredients from small producers.

Avalon offers cruises across Asia and on the Amazon, and a range of themed cruises in Europe. The Avalon Luminary runs a nine-day Active Discovery voyage on the upper Danube that includes cycling, guided hikes, canoeing and more.
avalonwaterways.com.au

 

Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises has also moved into river cruising. The Crystal Mozart is a completely refurbished vessel that now carries 52 fewer passengers than in its previous iteration. Recently, four more vessels have been added on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers. All carry just 106 passengers so there’s space for walk-in wardrobes and river-view beds.

In one of the onboard restaurants there will be a dedicated space for daily cooking classes and, as well as hiking and biking, Crystal offers more adventurous activities like sightseeing via helicopter.

Scenic

Scenic’s river cruise ships operate across Asia and in Europe as far as Russia. Two of its vessels based in France have been redesigned to better satisfy cruisers’ luxury needs. The number of cabins on both the Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire has been reduced to create two large Royal Owner’s Suites, a vitality pool and an expanded wellness centre. There are up to six dining options from casual to formal degustation.

Both vessels provide onboard cooking classes in a dedicated space featuring cooking stations and a cheese and wine cellar. While the redesigns are starting in France, the development may extend throughout the fleet.
scenic.com.au

 

Tauck

From just four European river vessels in 2014, Tauck now has nine. They operate on the Rhine, Rhone, Seine and Danube. The MS Joy offers a range of suites including some loft cabins that extend over two decks. Tauck prides itself on offering special cultural experiences and that’s true for its cruises, too, from a private tour of the Baroque libraries of Prague to an imperial evening in Vienna. As well as some themed cruises, Tauck offers a range of family cruises perfect for multi-generational holidays.

tauck.com.au

 

Uniworld

In the Uniworld fleet, there are 21 vessels and they operate in Europe and Asia. The company has teamed up with Butterfield & Robinson to offer some great outdoor excursions from biking along the Danube to kayaking in France. Uniworld doesn’t have standardised décor for its vessels, viewing them rather as floating boutique hotels.
uniworld.com

 

Viking

Viking reassessed the way it used space when it created its Viking Longships in 2012; vessels that, as the name suggests, utilise Scandinavian décor. More public space was found by removing the under-utilised gym and massage room. Now 46 of the 65 vessels in the fleet are Longships.  Viking operates throughout Europe and Asia. Each voyage offers an in-depth cultural enrichment program to bring the destination to life through music, history, art and food. It has expanded its food and wine program with Taste Of events that extend from food-based excursions to cooking classes and on-board demonstrations.

vikingrivercruises.com.au

Asian Offerings

There are some river cruise companies that operate solely in Asia and these are worth seeking out. This is particularly true for the increasingly crowded Irrawaddy and other rivers of Myanmar.
Pandaw is a partial recreation of what was once the largest shipping line in the world, the Irrawaddy Steamship Company (ISC). ISC vessels were scuttled to stop them being used by Japanese troops during World War II. One – The Pandaw – survived and was the model for the new fleet. The quest for authenticity ensures these vessels don’t have every modern amenity but the level of service is first class. The fleet has now diversified to other rivers across Asia.

The Strand is a legendary and recently renovated colonial hotel of Yangon, Myanmar. The hotel has now expanded into river cruising with a vessel of the same name that offers a similar level of luxury on the Irrawaddy. The Strand joins Belmond Road to Mandalay, the long-running luxurious sister vessel to the world’s most exotic rail journeys, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Sanctuary Retreats operates the only all-balcony vessel on the Irrawaddy: the Sanctuary Ananda.

Chasing the Sun in the Mediterranean

By Rob Mills

It’s a perfect spring evening on the Adriatic as our ship pulls away from the ancient preserved medieval Montenegrin port of Kotor bound for Dubrovnik, just 83 kilometres up the Croatian coast.

We’re sipping champagne at the pool deck bar, watching the fortified old town at the foot of the limestone Dinaric Alps grow smaller, when the gentle words of Captain Etienne Garcia are broadcast, urging his 250 “dear guests” to savour this “beautiful navigation”.

His ship, the French small luxury liner, Le Soléal, glides through the glassy, turquoise waters of the 28-kilometre long Bay of Kotor. It may look like a fjord but is, in fact, a ria or submerged river canyon. As we continue, two exquisite islets can be seen from the port side. One is Our Lady of the Rocks, which bears the 17th-century church of the same name. The other, Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe, is home to the 12th-century Saint George Benedictine monastery. Both are important pilgrim destinations.

Captain Garcia circles the striking islands before leaving the Bay of Kotor via the Verige Strait and its narrow 230-metre wide opening, giving some idea of the strategic importance of what was once thought to be Europe’s southernmost fjord. Fourteen days aboard Le Soléal exploring the ancient ruins of Southern Europe from Istanbul to Venice is a feast for the eyes, the intellect and – because this is a sophisticated French ship after all – a feast of the literal kind.

We are in fact being enthusiastically spoiled on APT’s 17-day Ancient Mediterranean luxury cruise from Athens and Istanbul to Venice. As well as two nights at Athens’ magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne with its Parthenon, Parliament, Syntagma Square and Mount Lycabettus views, a packed itinerary includes Santorini, Mykonos, Canakkale, Gallipoli, Troy, Assos, Istanbul, Kepez, Kusadasi, Ephesus, the Corinth, Canal, Itea, Delphi, Kotor, Montenegro, Dubrovnik and Venice.

There’s another aspect to this 3,471-kilometre experience. APT has chartered Le Soléal, one of French cruise company Ponant’s four exploration and discovery ships, for Gallipoli’s 100th anniversary. This means Gallipoli is front and centre for a few days, before Le Soléal continues her Aegean (Aegean) and Adriatic exploration.

But while this cruise is a one-off, it is also a dry-run for APT’s 2016 Boutique Collection Cruising program between Venice and Istanbul, which includes the 15-day Aegean and Adriatic Seas cruise aboard Ponant’s newest ship, Le Lyrial (almost identical to Le Soléal), and the 15-day Adriatic & Aegean Odyssey aboard APT’s even smaller, 114-passenger luxury ship, MS Island Sky.

Gallipoli will still be on the itinerary but the emphasis will swing towards the Aegean and Adriatic ports, with an itinerary very similar to Le Soléal’s. It’s tempting to lounge around this sleek ship – thankfully casino-free – but Le Soléal and APT, with its “Freedom of Choice” excursions, focus on providing a sophisticated experience that includes an active engagement with its destinations.

And so we find ourselves diving from a traditional wooden caïque into the bracing Mediterranean to swim 60 metres into Santorini’s Nea Kameni, where sulphurous gases heat the water to 37 degrees. Next, we’re hiking to the top of nearby Palia Kameni, an active volcanic centre in Santorini’s circular archipelago. The awe-inspiring site was once a single volcano that erupted catastrophically 3600 years ago.

In Montenegro, we choose between kayaking, swimming and snorkelling in the picturesque Bay of Kotor, speedboating to the Lustica peninsula’s luminous Blue Caves to swim and sunbathe, walking the walled old town of Kotor, then climbing the zigzag path to St John’s church.

In Croatia, we must decide between a fascinating cycle in the wine and olive-growing valley outside Dubrovnik (including lunch, wine tasting and a crash course on Croatian history and culture), walking the old town, or navigating the ramparts Game of Thrones aficionados might recognise. It’s serious FOMO territory.

And don’t get me started on Istanbul. From the moment we glide into the Golden Horn, with the city’s minarets silhouetted against the sunrise, and dock beneath Topkapi Palace, we’re offered a cornucopia of choices.

Something we can all experience is a dawn crossing of the Corinth Canal. Our 18-metre-wide ship navigates the 21.4-metre wide, 6.4-kilometre high-walled channel that cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, slicing the Greek mainland from the Peloponnesian peninsula. Few cruise ships are small enough to manage the journey, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be equally lax to gloss over shipboard life. Le Soléal’s interiors are sophisticated, with good use of neutral colours – sand, caramel, chocolate, pale aqua and cream. Paintings and sculptures have a nautical or galactic theme, with an eye-catching, two-deck sculptural “shoal of fish” in the role of central atrium light. And I defy you to stay awake in the theatre’s luxurious armchairs.

The 132 private-balcony cabins spread over four decks accommodate 264 guests (there’s lift access). Prestige staterooms are 22.6 square metres, with decent storage space, flat screen TV, desk, safe, air-conditioning, fridge and a shower with an optional glass screen so you can enjoy the view and your L’Occitane products simultaneously.

There’s butler service for Deck 6 guests and room service for all others. The ship’s spa operates in association with French beauty brand Sothys As the Med races past, Restaurant L’Eclipse serves excellent degustation-style a la carte dinners, with matched European wines and champagnes. Restaurant Le Pytheas, boasting outdoor seating on the pool deck, is more casual. Buffet-style dining is complemented by made-to-order hot meals and to-die-for desserts including delicate crèmes brulees and, a piece de resistance, chocolate and sugared-pistachio tart.

Breakfast is another treat – one you can order to your bed! Amazing croissants and pastries are a highlight. Room service is also available for dinner, though the lure of fine food and good conversation beyond your door is strong, which brings me to the bars. Galilee resides in the main lounge but it’s the airy Observation bar that lures us most strongly. Its huge skylight and wraparound glass offer the perfect setting for Bruno’s magnificent pre- and post-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, accompanied by the delicate sounds of concert pianist, Valentyn Smolianinoff

Le Soléal’s name is a combination of the French “sun” and “the one who shows the way.” It’s appropriate for this wonderful experience.

Chasing the Sun: APT Cruises

It’s a perfect spring evening on the Adriatic as our ship pulls away from the ancient preserved medieval Montenegrin port of Kotor bound for Dubrovnik, just 83 kilometres up the Croatian coast.

We’re sipping champagne at the pool deck bar, watching the fortified old town at the foot of the limestone Dinaric Alps grow smaller, when the gentle words of Captain Etienne Garcia are broadcast, urging his 250 “dear guests” to savour this “beautiful navigation”.

His ship, the French small luxury liner, Le Soléal, glides through the glassy, turquoise waters of the 28-kilometre long Bay of Kotor. It may look like a fjord but is, in fact, a ria or submerged river canyon. As we continue, two exquisite islets can be seen from the port side. One is Our Lady of the Rocks, which bears the 17th-century church of the same name. The other, Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe, is home to the 12th-century Saint George Benedictine monastery. Both are important pilgrim destinations.

Captain Garcia circles the striking islands before leaving the Bay of Kotor via the Verige Strait and its narrow 230-metre wide opening, giving some idea of the strategic importance of what was once thought to be Europe’s southernmost fjord. Fourteen days aboard Le Soléal exploring the ancient ruins of Southern Europe from Istanbul to Venice is a feast for the eyes, the intellect and – because this is a sophisticated French ship after all – a feast of the literal kind.

We are in fact being enthusiastically spoiled on APT’s 17-day Ancient Mediterranean luxury cruise from Athens and Istanbul to Venice. As well as two nights at Athens’ magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne with its Parthenon, Parliament, Syntagma Square and Mount Lycabettus views, a packed itinerary includes Santorini, Mykonos, Canakkale, Gallipoli, Troy, Assos, Istanbul, Kepez, Kusadasi, Ephesus, the Corinth, Canal, Itea, Delphi, Kotor, Montenegro, Dubrovnik and Venice.

There’s another aspect to this 3,471-kilometre experience. APT has chartered Le Soléal, one of French cruise company Ponant’s four exploration and discovery ships, for Gallipoli’s 100th anniversary. This means Gallipoli is front and centre for a few days, before Le Soléal continues her Aegean (Aegean) and Adriatic exploration.

But while this cruise is a one-off, it is also a dry-run for APT’s 2016 Boutique Collection Cruising program between Venice and Istanbul, which includes the 15-day Aegean and Adriatic Seas cruise aboard Ponant’s newest ship, Le Lyrial (almost identical to Le Soléal), and the 15-day Adriatic & Aegean Odyssey aboard APT’s even smaller, 114-passenger luxury ship, MS Island Sky.

Gallipoli will still be on the itinerary but the emphasis will swing towards the Aegean and Adriatic ports, with an itinerary very similar to Le Soléal’sIt’s tempting to lounge around this sleek ship – thankfully casino-free – but Le Soléal and APT, with its “Freedom of Choice” excursions, focus on providing a sophisticated experience that includes an active engagement with its destinations. 

And so we find ourselves diving from a traditional wooden caïque into the bracing Mediterranean to swim 60 metres into Santorini’s Nea Kameni, where sulphurous gases heat the water to 37 degrees. Next, we’re hiking to the top of nearby Palia Kameni, an active volcanic centre in Santorini’s circular archipelago. The awe-inspiring site was once a single volcano that erupted catastrophically 3600 years ago.

In Montenegro, we choose between kayaking, swimming and snorkelling in the picturesque Bay of Kotor, speedboating to the Lustica peninsula’s luminous Blue Caves to swim and sunbathe, walking the walled old town of Kotor, then climbing the zigzag path to St John’s church.

In Croatia, we must decide between a fascinating cycle in the wine and olive-growing valley outside Dubrovnik (including lunch, wine tasting and a crash course on Croatian history and culture), walking the old town, or navigating the ramparts Game of Thrones aficionados might recognise. It’s serious FOMO territory.

And don’t get me started on Istanbul. From the moment we glide into the Golden Horn, with the city’s minarets silhouetted against the sunrise, and dock beneath Topkapi Palace, we’re offered a cornucopia of choices.

Something we can all experience is a dawn crossing of the Corinth Canal. Our 18-metre-wide ship navigates the 21.4-metre wide, 6.4-kilometre high-walled channel that cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, slicing the Greek mainland from the Peloponnesian peninsula. Few cruise ships are small enough to manage the journey, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be equally lax to gloss over shipboard life. Le Soléal’s interiors are sophisticated, with good use of neutral colours – sand, caramel, chocolate, pale aqua and cream. Paintings and sculptures have a nautical or galactic theme, with an eye-catching, two-deck sculptural “shoal of fish” in the role of central atrium light. And I defy you to stay awake in the theatre’s luxurious armchairs.

The 132 private-balcony cabins spread over four decks accommodate 264 guests (there’s lift access). Prestige staterooms are 22.6 square metres, with decent storage space, flat screen TV, desk, safe, air-conditioning, fridge and a shower with an optional glass screen so you can enjoy the view and your L’Occitane products simultaneously.

There’s butler service for Deck 6 guests and room service for all others. The ship’s spa operates in association with French beauty brand Sothys As the Med races past, Restaurant L’Eclipse serves excellent degustation-style a la carte dinners, with matched European wines and champagnes. Restaurant Le Pytheas, boasting outdoor seating on the pool deck, is more casual. Buffet-style dining is complemented by made-to-order hot meals and to-die-for desserts including delicate crèmes brulees and, a piece de resistance, chocolate and sugared-pistachio tart. 

Breakfast is another treat – one you can order to your bed! Amazing croissants and pastries are a highlight. Room service is also available for dinner, though the lure of fine food and good conversation beyond your door is strong, which brings me to the bars. Galilee resides in the main lounge but it’s the airy Observation bar that lures us most strongly. Its huge skylight and wraparound glass offer the perfect setting for Bruno’s magnificent pre- and post-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, accompanied by the delicate sounds of concert pianist, Valentyn Smolianinoff

Le Soléal’s name is a combination of the French “sun” and “the one who shows the way.” It’s appropriate for this wonderful experience.

View over historical Kotor Bay, Montenegro